Restaurants in the Southwest have long capitalized on the region's love of the versatile tortilla. More recently, though, supermarkets in the Lone Star State have followed that lead and incorporated tortilla-making machines into their store design. And the public is eating them up.
Today, demand for the flat, cornmeal edible is spreading everywhere, fueled by consumers' growing desire for health and fitness, as well as their love affair with foods that are simple, yet interesting and creative. Combine this with equipment that allows shoppers to witness the actual preparation of what they are about to purchase, and tortillas become a product to be reckoned with.
Retailers such as San Antonio-based H.E.Butt Grocery Co. and Fiesta Mart, based in Houston, have made quite a business out of in-house tortilla production and are creating product that is pleasing a clientele that has grown up on authentic Mexican fare.
Many believe the greatest feature of the tortilla machine is its theater aspect, since it looks and operates unlike any other piece of equipment in the supermarket. This activity leads to another major benefit -- the consumers' reassurance that the product they are purchasing is fresh.
"People always buy more when they know [the product] is really fresh," said Vicente Hernandez, bakery manager for a Fiesta unit in the Dallas-Fort Worth region.
Fiesta Mart and H-E-B have found that while the freshness factor does carry a great deal of clout, customers don't necessarily need to witness the entire process to be convinced.
At H-E-B's Central Market in Austin, a store-level source said their in-store setup, which runs adjacent to their bakery, used to be entirely visible to customers, but due to ever increasing product lines and the display space necessary to accommodate them, the store had to make some alterations.
"Customers used to be able to walk right up and see all the conveyor belts and the full process," said the source. "But we've had to rearrange some displays, and they now block a good portion of the machinery. The decision had to be made to either increase our product line and hide part of the production, or leave things as they were. [H-E-B] decided they wanted to offer more products."
He added that employees engaged in packaging the freshly made tortillas are still visible to shoppers, and customers who stop to taste the free tortilla samples offered directly in front of the production area can, and often do, peek around the displays to get a better view.
"We are simply fascinated with machinery," said Brian Salus, president of Richmond, Va.-based Salus & Associates, a supermarket consulting firm. "And these machines bring so much energy to a department. People can't help but stop and stare."
The setup is similar at Fiesta Mart, which houses the machine within the bakery department. Hernandez said that the full production cycle is not in plain view, but customers can see when the tortillas come out on the final conveyor belt and can watch as they are packaged fresh by bakery employees.
Sampling is part of the strategy here, too. Hernandez said customers constantly request samples and always want to try the tortillas hot off the presses.
"They want them because they think they are the freshest," he said. "They don't understand how very hot they are when they come off the machine and that they need to cool first."
Tortillas are, in fact, a hot business for both of these retailers.
H-E-B has been known to produce more than 500 10-count bags of tortillas in one day, and the source said they virtually always sell out by day's end. In Texas, demand for tortillas just goes with the territory, he mused.
"We don't ever want to run out, because the disappointment on [the customers'] faces is just terrible," he said.
The low cost of the item is a big draw as well. At Fiesta Mart, customers can purchase two 24-count bags of plain tortillas for just $1.
While tortilla-making equipment originally was more typically utilized in restaurants, Eligio Garcia, parts and warrantee manager for New Braunfels, Texas-based X-Press Manufacturing, a company that manufactures tortilla machines, said that over the past year or so, the company has been getting a lot of inquiries from supermarkets -- and not just in the Southwest.
"Texas, in particular, and some of the other Southern states are pretty well saturated by tortillas, whether they're being made by hand or by machine, but the whole Mexican-food concept has been growing," he said. "We have had a couple of shows up North, and we're trying to get a few more, because [the demand] is growing up there."
X-Press offers two different variations of the equipment, both of which allow viewers to witness the entire preparation process. The larger of the two, model 88, is semiautomated and has been on the market for about 11 years. Garcia said that employee operators drop a dough ball onto a conveyor, and the machine handles the rest. From the conveyor, the dough will fall onto a rotating disk, where a plate will actually come down and press the dough ball into a flat tortilla. End-user cost for this model is about $27,700.
The newer model 44 "manual press" runs at a substantially lower purchase price, about $14,900. While the overall size of this model is smaller, it does require the same amount of floor space as the automated version. To operate this model, employees place a dough ball between two heated press plates, manually press it into a tortilla and then transfer it to the cooking disk.
The stainless steel, circular-frame machines require a floor area of 4-by-4 feet and must clear the wall by at least 15 inches. Garcia said construction of a third model is currently underway.
Mark Garcia, principal of the San Antonio-based consulting firm The Retail Group, said the design of all manufacturers' tortilla-makers bear a strong resemblance to each other.
"The machines will all be fairly similar in operation and build," he said. "Some may use turnstile-operated heated plates, some may use heated conveyor belts, some may be more sophisticated than others, but basically the idea is the same."
Purchasing a tortilla-making machine might be easy enough, but training store associates to operate the device is an entirely different matter. Like other manufacturers, X-Press personnel travel to the new location when the store or restaurant is ready to do its initial startup. As part of their warrantee, they will go to the site, set up the machine, and make sure it hasn't been damaged during freight and that no adjustments are necessary.
"We'll do a training session with their personnel in the morning, get [the machine] going and actually make tortillas," said Garcia. "[This assures] the company is satisfied with the size and diameter and thickness of the tortilla."
According to Salus, size and diameter are only a fraction of the options available to operators who have tortilla-making equipment. Healthfulness and color and flavor variety are really helping the trend to spread.
"There is basically next to no fat in them," he said. "And the new flavors, like spinach and sun-dried tomato, really strike the palate. They are a very versatile item."
Both Fiesta Mart and H-E-B are creating a stir with signature-flavor tortillas that they create from their own recipes and with ingredients from other departments in the store.
Hernandez said that at Fiesta, they head over to their produce department for fresh ingredients to blend into their recipe for pico de gallo tortillas, and H-E-B's source said their Southwestern tortilla with crushed jalapenos is one of the best sellers.
Ironically, even though the tortillas are naturally very low in fat, H-E-B still offers a fat-free version.
"People just like to see fat-free products [labeled] these days," said the source. "It's reassuring for them."
Of course, tortilla-making is not without its faults and complications. The retailers SN spoke with said that while the customers love the product, equipment operation is sometimes more of a love-hate relationship.
The respective retailers said that H-E-B's current machine replaced one that broke down all the time, and Fiesta Mart's machine was actually awaiting repair on the day of SN's interview. One retailer, however, gave up on the concept entirely.
Ron Adkinson, deli manager for the Whole Foods unit in Austin, said they had a tortilla machine in their deli department for about two-and-a-half years before they opted to get rid of it.
"It just wasn't a good item for us," he said. "It was difficult to operate and broke down a lot and wasn't really a big draw as far as our customers go. It just wasn't worth the effort."
Adkinson added that the grocery aisles continue to sell packaged tortillas, but they are not a part of the deli any longer.
All those interviewed agreed that the growing acceptance -- and demand -- for Mexican flavors is spreading to all areas of the country. And while it may take a little while before supermarket shoppers in the Northeast see tortilla machines at their local grocery store, some restaurants, like On The Border in Paramus, N.J., have incorporated a live-action tortilla-making station, a novelty for this area. And even smaller stores, which might not have the room to accommodate or finances to pay for a machine of their own, use prepackaged tortillas to highlight the current focus on Mexican food.
Giant Gourmet, Hackensack, N.J., doesn't make their own tortillas, but does merchandise packaged tortillas, along with several Mexican cheeses and other ingredients, in a refrigerated reach-in case in the meat department. The ingredients are strategically situated between the poultry and beef offerings.